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Swift & Sons is a cut above in Fulton Market

The Boka Restaurant Group's long-awaited steak house reimagines the format in a repurposed meat locker.

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Gustavus Franklin Swift was the Chicago meat-packer who coined the phrase "everything but the squeal" to describe how efficient his slaughterhouses were at turning whole live animals into meat, soap, fertilizer, glue, and oleomargarine. Swift was also the guy who figured out how to ship butchered cows in refrigerated railcars, and is thus largely responsible for turning us into a nation enslaved to cheap meat.

I'm certain the principals behind Boka Restaurant Group (Girl & the Goat, Momotaro, Perennial Virant, etc) and B. Hospitality Co. (the Bristol, Formento's, etc) didn't intend to evoke that complicated history when they chose to name their long-awaited, sprawling new steak house Swift & Sons. (An earlier version namechecked Swift's fellow meat-packing baron Philip Danforth Armour, but a trademark suit filed by Lisle-based Armour-Eckrich Meats put a stop to that.) But its name is among the very first signals to distinguish Swift & Sons from the glut of expense-account feedlots that have opened around town in recent years.

Nobody seems to be getting tired of opening steak houses, but at least the newer herd seems to have taken into account the need to set itself apart, whether it's the ridiculous "female-friendly" STK Chicago, the slick RPM Steak, the Euro-style Bavette's, or the unassuming but excellent neighborhood spot Boeufhaus.

At Swift & Sons one of the distinguishing characteristics is its footprint in the former Fulton Market Cold Storage—a building that literally had to be defrosted before it could house the restaurant (and soon Google's new local HQ)—and the chef, Chris Pandel, whose work over the years at the Bristol, Balena, and Formento's has been nothing if not distinctive.

The brassy, wood-paneled, multitiered curvilinear space features multiple dining rooms, a subordinate "Tavern" (aka the bar) with its own abbreviated menu, an embedded adjunct seafood-focused restaurant called Cold Storage, and a working concierge desk to help you score theater tickets, or maybe tell you where to get a good steak. Exposed concrete support columns, clocks set to Central Standard Time in various midwestern cow towns, and scarlet hardcover volumes on shelves are supposedly meant to evoke ol' Gus's imagined office.

Pandel's menu follows a familiar steak-house template: shellfish towers; classic if reinterpreted appetizers, salads, and soups; a handful of token nonbeefy entrees; and a dozen or so slabs of what the company refers to as "boutique beef," sourced from relatively small farms that do right by their bovines—which is to say, the opposite of what Gustavus Swift was trading in.

Not-so-subtle breaks from form can be tasted with an appetizer of agnolotti stuffed with sweet celery-root puree and dotted with a perimeter of aged balsamic vinegar, a plate of pasta so delicate and ethereally delicious it somehow seems both an outlier and just the thing you want to consume before tackling a 34-ounce porterhouse. Balance on a smaller scale is evident with a dense, rich foie gras torchon considerably lightened by apple gelee as luminous as amber. I'm not certain why anyone would want to precede a hunk of red meat with a dish such as this—or for that matter, steak tartare—but these are some seriously refined plates.

Deviation from the norm in more standard steak-house classics is apparent too. Celery root appears again in a large, flattened, browned crab cake as well as in celery-root remoulade. An intensely peppery Caesar salad becomes an exercise in extremes with salty cheese and bracing spice. Same goes for a mound of arugula tossed with thinly sliced mushrooms almost pickled in the acidity of the vinaigrette. Both are an ideal counterpoint to the richness inherent in a crock of French onion soup, its beef stock almost gelatinous under cover of blistered Gouda cheese.

Purists who prefer their bivalves unadorned might balk at shellfish towers, hot or cold versions, priced per person, featuring bonito butter on steamed oysters, or creamy leche de tigre scallop ceviche that seems to possess no acidity. But both hot and cold versions are novel, with six-inch langoustines topped with creamy shrimp mousse, sardine tins brimming with delicately smoked mussels, or a buttery scallop jiggling on the half shell with shaved mushroom, lemon, and parsley.

I wish I could summon the same enthusiasm for a seafood entree I forced myself to order; an overcooked striped bass fillet was a reminder that this is a massive operation still getting steady on its feet. On the other hand a roast half chicken, another baseline barometer of kitchen competency, was a paragon of the form, its brittle, delicate skin armoring lush, juicy poultry flesh. At $29 it's a dollar cheaper than the least expensive steak on the menu, and so elementally good that on a return visit I might consider passing on the beef.

So how about that beef? Swift & Sons makes it narrowly possible to get in the game without bankrupting yourself, offering $28 steak frites on the low end, and six- and eight-ounce fillets at $39 and $45 respectively. A few cuts hover near $50, then prices rise precipitously, sometimes in inverse proportion to weight: a $50 Chilean Wagyu rib eye certainly looks tempting, until one learns it's a mere five-ounce piece. Meanwhile the menu tops out with a 36-ounce dry-aged long-bone rib chop and beef Wellington for two, each for $105. You can upgrade to surf and turf with grilled langoustines or turf and turf with foie gras, or add sauce supplements like oxtail marmalade, anchovy garlic butter, bordelaise, or bearnaise. But given the beefy purity of the porterhouse, rib eye, and rib cap I sampled, these accessories only gild the lily. Wüsthof steak knives glide through the rib cap—a steak I could eat exclusively for the rest of my life—as if it were iron-rich meat butter.

Sides—apart from sour-cream-drenched crispy fingerling potatoes seasoned with poppy seeds, sesame, onion, and garlic like an everything bagel—hit the customary notes, from an imposing but surprisingly buoyant mound of creamed spinach fortified with white wine to crocks of salty fried brussels sprouts or buttery roasted mixed mushrooms.

I'm always impressed by anyone who can take dessert at a steak house, but if there's one pastry chef who can persuade you it would have to be Meg Galus. The NoMi vet features no towering carrot, cheese, or chocolate cakes but instead the inventive, clever desserts she's known for. Explore the black-bottom pudding: progressively darker layers of chocolate strata, from a white chocolate sorbet to a milk chocolate pudding to a dark chocolate mousse. Or take it easy with a light peanut butter mousse stuffed with salted caramel, garnished with caramel corn, and accompanied by a popcorn sorbet. But it is Galus's ice cream that should take priority. No matter the flavor, from coconut-lime to slightly bitter butterscotch to chocolate cookie dough, she achieves uncommonly dense, silky textures still refreshing enough to finish a strenuous up-menu workout.

Cocktails range from a sweet, winey West Branch with bourbon amaro and curacao to a mellow Pasquale, like a negroni minus the bitterness. Alternatively you could occupy the majority of your evening trying to zero in on something from the 24-page wine list, with more than 600 by the bottle and 30 by the glass. Cut to the chase with guidance from sommelier Marcello Cancelli, who can tell you anything you'd possibly care to know about any bottle you're considering.

Who knows if Gustavus Swift would've felt at home in this gleaming, expansive meat locker, but the Boka group and B. Hospitality have reimagined the steak house as something at once fundamental and original.  v

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